Gene Wolfe as Apologist for Torture

Sun Oct 9, 2011

I am becoming increasingly convinced of the necessity of what seems to be a very crude intentionalist method in literary interpretation: that in many cases, the attitudes reflected by characters (or, to a lesser extent, situations) in various texts are in fact direct statements of the author’s own views.

Sophisticated readers tend to reject such a notion absolutely, and the reasons for this are usually good. Many attempts at creative writing start from what might be called the idealized projection of the self, or the creation of an environment in which certain wrongs might be redressed. Or where certain ideas find a more logical or consistent home, for that matter. The Mary Sue phenomenon is a reliable proxy for what I am talking about here.

I was reminded of this interpretive gambit, or problem, or however you want to construe it, when reading this NYT article on children kidnapped in Argentina’s “dirty war.” I was at first appalled that you won’t find the name “Kissinger” in the article, or any other mention of how the United States—driven by such nuanced reasoners as Jeanne Kirkpatrick—did nothing to intervene in such atrocities. I then thought of my long-held suspicion that the origin of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, which is a long first-person narrative of a torturer in a far-future South America who ends up redeeming humanity, was inspired by the news accounts from South America during the mid-to-late 70s. That’s not particularly interesting or novel, I suppose, but the fact that Severian offers up in the course of the novels an apologia for his profession has always struck me, in the care with which the argument is presented, as being endorsed by the author. (The argument is that essentially it’s more humane to torture people for crimes rather than to imprison them, and that also it is the only way to maintain order when threatened by external subversion. This last element—reprehensible as it is—is not argued as strongly in the text, to be fair.)

Most interpretive orthodoxy would the stress the inevitable undermining tendency of novelistic discourse and might even appeal to older, New Critical notions about the independence and autonomy of the text. The psychological notion that literary creation involves so many unconscious processes that authorial intention is a necessarily limited concept is also quite persuasive.

Even so, however, the Wolfe case strikes me as very clear. This comes from knowing about his political beliefs and sympathies and having read (almost) all of his other fiction, in which similar ideas recur. I don’t even think of this as a superficially esoteric interpretation, the way that I see Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden and Anton Chigurh as the true heroes of Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men. (I wrote about the latter novel and film here.)

Another thing that has got me thinking about this issue is reading Ezra Pound’s radio broadcasts. I don’t see a tension between thinking that the Pisan Cantos should have been awarded the Bollingen prize and that Pound should have been hanged for these broadcasts. But those poems are a remarkable example of the transformative power of art. The ideas expressed in the radio broadcasts are loathsome and simply stupid.* The very same ideas in the cantos are expressed with great aesthetic interest while remaining utterly repellent.

*Pound read Canto XLVI in one broadcast (2/19/1942), which you can listen to here. The recording isn’t very good, and it comes from a period of inferior writing; but this is an interesting test case.